Excerpt of “Monkey Dance”
“Monkey Dance” chronicles three teenagers who are the children of Cambodian refugees as they come of age in Lowell, Massachusetts. Rooted in their parents’ culture by their involvement in traditional Cambodian dance, the teenagers struggle to stay linked to their roots while navigating their tough, working-class neighborhood with daily threats of modern day city life.
Q1: The movie is titled after a traditional Cambodian dance but focuses on three members of the Lowell Cambodian dance troupe. How did you decide to stray from the dance and concentrate on the three members of the troupe?
A1: When I first started, I saw an article in The Boston Globe about how the Lowell Police Department and Big Brother Big Sister were pairing up with a traditional Cambodian dance troupe to keep kids out of gangs and off the streets. I asked if I could visit. At first, I thought I was making a movie about the dance troupe, so I filmed the rehearsals and performances. I did a lot of filming and then at a certain point, I realized that the dance was beautiful but there needed to be story, for something to change over time.
The rest of the kids’ lives were interesting—the part time jobs where they were working, the cars they were fixing up, their relationship to their parents, school, college, gangs, brother and sisters who had wandered down the wrong path. I started filming all those other things. It wasn’t until the end that the parents’ stories got worked into the film and at the end, the film hinges on what they sacrificed for their children.
Q2: Was it difficult to communicate with the parents who did not speak English?
A2: The parents spoke varying levels of English and I don’t speak Khmer. They were very pleased that I was filming their children—they thought they were selected for something special. When I started, I wanted the teenage perspective and I wasn’t as interested in the adults. Towards the end, I hired a translator to interview the parents, and I was blown away by how eloquent they were in their own language and in expressing their thoughts about their children. Their children didn’t know that much about what they had been through, and through the film the children learned more about their history.
Q3: Each Cambodian high school student was given a camera. How much footage did they shoot and how did you determine what to use?
A3: I admire filmmakers like Spencer Nakasako, who made a.k.a don bonus, which was completely shot by a Cambodian teenager. I gave each of my subjects a camera. The deal was that they could keep the camera if they shot the footage and let me use some of it in the film. They got some interesting footage, but it wasn’t as big a part of the film as I had anticipated. I realized that some people make amazing film subjects, but those aren’t necessarily the same people who can shoot amazing footage of themselves.
Q4: Can you describe the experience of accompanying Linda and her family to Cambodia?
A4: As a filmmaker, my favorite filming is overseas, and almost all of my films contain some kind of return to the roots. It was amazing to be with the family and see not a tourist perspective but a family perspective. I do think Linda matured a lot on that trip and the film reflects that. But in documentary editing, things are not necessarily edited in the order they came. The trip to Cambodia was one of the first things I filmed. I continued to film for four years after that, but I ended up putting the Cambodia trip about 2/3 of the way through the film even though chronologically, it was much earlier. I thought for the film story, it made sense to come later.
Q5: Logistically, what was the most difficult part of making the documentary?
A5: It was an observational film, so being there for important moments was always a challenge. Being there when Sam got his acceptance letter from college. Being there when Sochenda got fired. There was a lot of sitting around in cold parking lots of Stop & Shop, waiting for a kid to get out of work only to learn that he had skipped work that day without telling me—they’re teenagers, you know? I would have driven an hour to get up there, sitting in the car for an hour waiting for him not to show up. I was also living in Amsterdam for a year and a half out of the four years I filmed this, so I wasn’t in town for Linda’s accident. I had to film her months later describing the accident and she was completely healed.
Q6: What was your funding campaign for the documentary? How hard was it to get funding sources like ITVS, Sundance Institute Documentary Fund, WGBH and others?
A6: I applied for lots of grants like everybody. It’s very difficult and challenging, but I did manage to fully fund the project. ITVS is one of the biggest funders of independent work, and like many people, I applied several times before finally getting an ITVS contract. The film was almost done when I got that grant. I did get some other grants earlier, such as from the Center for Asian American Media , which is one of the PBS minority consortia. They are another great funding source and they sometimes come in earlier than ITVS. That helped me leverage the other funding. Sundance Documentary Fund is also wonderful, but very competitive, too. It’s not easy.
Q7: Have you kept in touch with the three students since they went to college? Where are they now?
A7: The three are no longer kids—they are in their late twenties. They’re doing great. They all stayed in Lowell. Sam is a teacher at Lowell High School. He has one or two kids, and is married. Linda runs a teen program at the Lowell Health Center. Sochenda works in the same office as Linda. They all contribute to the community and are very successful people. That’s not necessarily always the case. I think being in the film had something to do with it but they were all very good leaders and that was part of the reason I picked them also.
Q8: Lastly, what advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers on making a documentary like this?
A8: Get out there and start shooting something by yourself or with someone who has experience shooting. Start cutting it together and show it to people who you respect – ask professional filmmakers to watch it and get feedback. You can’t get funding for anything really until you have some footage to show, especially if you’re a first time filmmaker. You have to prove that you have a story. Roll up your sleeves and start shooting!
For more information on director Julie Mallozzi and her work, visit: www.juliemallozzi.com.
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